Roll up, Roll up

Susie Wild reviews Paul McVeigh’s debut novel The Good Son (Salt Publishing 2015) 

I was born the day the Troubles started.

‘Wasn’t I, Ma? says me.

‘It was you that started them, son,’ says she, and we all laugh, except Our Paddy. I put that down to his pimples and general ugliness. It must be hard to be happy with a face like that.

Roll up, Roll up for the Mickey Donnelly show — a vivid, playful, fence-hurdling, page-turning act of cocky bravado and endearing imagination. Mickey is a shining star of a protagonist; charming, erudite, and warmly, infectiously funny. He breathes fresh air into the much raked over subject of Ireland’s Troubles. Still, those that live in Mickey’s square mile in 1980s Ardoyne are often immune to his charms, calling him ‘a gabshite’, ‘wee maggot’, ‘gay’. Scundering him in broad daylight. Scundering him at night.

More Glee than grit, show-tune-soprano Mickey is a boy on the brink of things, trying to cross the borders and No Man’s Land between streets and friendships groups; playing and responsibility. Restless amongst all manner or unrest, he ‘creepity creeps’ from childhood towards being an almost-adult and stumbles upon things he shouldn’t: soldiers, dirtbirds, unmarked graves for lost pets and misplaced men, and faces he recognises beneath the masks. There is violence and there is disappointment in these places where ‘Loose Talk Costs Lives’. There are punches and kicks and there are guns. For death is far from make believe to the kids of Ardoyne’s playgrounds.

They’re gettin’ closer. You’re supposed to say Right and nod up if you pass boys you don’t know. If you don’t, you could be a Prod, so they’ll beat you up. Or you’re scared of them, so they’ll beat you up. But I hate it cuz I don’t sound like them. And my nod feels wrong. And boys always notice and hate me. […]

I’ve always known I’d die young, but I thought it would be from somethin’ really exotic like Scarlet Fever or Impetigo.

This smart boy of stories and voices is a bit too different for Ardoyne people’s liking, they can’t work him out. They label him ‘fruity’ yet he pines for the girl-next-door Maxine — the garage actress with her glittery blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes — and he badly wants to be back playing weddings and telepathing and sharing 10p mixes with his little sister and former best friend Wee Maggie. His drinking Da keeps disappearing and reappearing and his Ma is either working more to cover all the times he nicks her purse or home, hiding noise and bruises.

I hate him. I swear to Almighty God, I do. And the next time I see him I’m gonna tell him. I’m gonna say I hate you, you big bastard. You’re nothin’ but a horrible, evil bastard and I hate you. And then I’ll kill him. Believe you me. I’ll kill him.

And so, in the summer after primary ends, as secondary school choices mean his few childhood friends also seem to drift from him, Mickey the loner dreams of the future, saving to go to America to be a star of stage and screen. Like the actors in his favourite ‘filims’ The Wizard of Oz and Grease. There’s no place like home, and that’s why he’s getting out, but there’s some growing up to do first.

I want to get a plane. I dream of gettin’ jet lag. It sounds so glamorous.

Conflicted, his marked difference from the other boys is one of the things that helps him, in the end, to become astute. Mickey gathers his Spidey senses and limbers up to learn how to be a man, or at least one of the boys instead of one of the girls, who are getting too mean to play with. He decides there are things he needs to have and things he needs to do. He arms himself with his dog Killer, with secrets and whispers about his enemies, with knowledge of how to lumber, with actions copied so that he starts to walk like John Wayne. He’s a cowboy in many ways, is Mickey The Misfit, a Buffalo Bill entertainer showing off his tricks. A lone (super)hero in the Wild North of Belfast wanting, like Huckleberry Finn, to rescue the women in his family and buy their ticket to freedom. He’s a good son too, looking out for his little sister, helping his Mammy out, going the extra mile even if it means dancing a jig where he shouldn’t, into the paths of glue sniffers and alcoholics; of bombs and riots and the IRA.

I have very clear instructions. Don’t go to the top of the street cuz there’s always riots. Don’t go to the bottom of the street cuz there’s No Man’s Land and there’s always riots. Don’t go near the Bray or the Bone hills cuz that leads to Proddy Oldpark where they throw stones across the road from their side. Don’t go into the aul houses cuz a wee boy fell through the stairs in one and broke his two legs. I think his neck too. Ma could be exaggerating.

As he counts down the nine weeks until starting at St. Gabriel’s, we glimpse truths through the cracks Mickey uncovers… from secret boozing to special uncles and various things his older brother Paddy is stashing in Killer’s kennel. As all of the cast of characters are spying on one and another, we watch the slow dawning understanding that builds on Mickey’s hatred for his Da and widens as the political, familial and emotional revelations start to come firecracker fast.

Whenever I close my eyes I see zombies, covered in blood, in No Man’s Land. No Man’s Land. Where the dead live. They’re coming for me. I keep my eyes open in the dark.

Soldiers come in the night to take men, boys are beaten, windows and kneecaps are smashed and families and homes are broken. The bangs and explosions are outside, beyond the dog house, the garden gate, the end of the street and they are internal and indoors, shots sounding louder than when all the mothers and wives were banging their bin lids and they resonate long after you read the final page.

If you are a short story writer or reader the name Paul McVeigh will be known to you, for his work championing the short story and all who write them with events like London Short Story Festival and The Word Factory. In The Good Son, a startling debut, McVeigh proves he more than warrants the literary company he keeps. The writing is sharp and the voice, a difficult one to sustain over a novel’s length, rarely falters. With pages so full of heart and helter-skelter movement, it is no surprise to learn that he also has a background in theatre. The pages of his first novel are alive with sparky dialogue and this visual language, the brash and the subtle, the compelling, the compassionate.

An engaging storyteller, I hope to see more from Paul McVeigh, and not just when in conversation with other writers.

Susie Wild

This review first appeared in Issue 6 of Bare Fiction Magazine (November 2015).

The Good Son, Paul McVeigh

Published by Salt Publishing (2015)

ISBN: 9781784630232

RRP: £8.99